/ 7 October 2020

Eusebius McKaiser: What’s worse than corruption? Complacency

Graphic Ca Eusebius Corrupt Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

Corruption isn’t victimless. All citizens, except the thieves, are victims. We therefore need to make sure we do not become jaded as we hear new detail about the extent of the looting that happened under our noses for way too long. The arrests by the Hawks over the past week or so, of various civil servants, politicians and businesspeople, need to be carefully contextualised so that we understand the stakes fully.

There was some good journalism in the Sunday Times of 4 October 2020 in which reporters told the stories of the people of the Free State whose lives have been ruined as a result of the asbestos removal tender scandals. Many people have died from lung cancer. Many more are living poor quality lives as a result of breathing in dust and toxins. Their roofs remain plastered with asbestos, which haven’t been removed because those who should have done so, stole the money and didn’t do the job. 

The cost of corruption is, literally, the deaths of the most vulnerable in society. 

We know intellectually that corruption is wrong but it is important to see the images of the direct impact of corruption so that we never dare become jaded. Corruption isn’t just about unethical accounting practices. It is a direct and total attack on society. The stakes are that existential and that visceral. 

Which is also why it is significant that someone like Vincent Smith, a senior former ANC MP, has also been arrested. He was not some junior backbencher planted simply to heckle the opposition, and to ask softball questions of ministers appearing before Parliament. He was, to take just one instance of his seniority, the chair of Parliament’s oversight committee looking after correctional services. This put him in a position to try to influence the degree of oversight provided over initial reports of corruption implicating Bosasa and then prisons boss Linda Mti. 

Many of our country’s investigative journalists did excellent sleuthing work and could not understand why the usually razor-sharp Smith would be less than enthused about maintaining his customary rigour in the face of evidence that was emerging about Bosasa.

Now, however, it is obvious. It all makes sense. His critical faculties, and his commitment to the constitutional duties that he had signed up for as an MP, and especially as a senior member of the legislature in charge of the work of this critical parliamentary body, had started to wane. 

And this is the crux of the attack on society. Not only does Smith now have to answer the case for fraud and corruption of some R671 000 paid to him from Bosasa, we in turn must come to reckon with the meaning of it all. What was the aim of possibly corrupting him? 

The aim of what seems to be corrupt payments must have been to buy his silence as a senior MP specifically, so that he would help provide a shield against accountability and oversight. 

It’s an outrage

Read the previous paragraph several times if the words make sense grammatically but you are not immediately shaken. You should be shaken. You should be outraged. Because it means that the state capture project is not only about stealing public funds, it also directly chips away at the very foundations of our democracy, including the constitutional role of an institution such as Parliament itself. 

MPs are lawmakers and they have a duty to hold the government accountable. The accountability role is critical to the health of our democracy. If a chair of a portfolio committee is captured by non-state actors, then it means your votes are basically pointless because the mandate you give the MP via the party you voted for is ignored. 

So when senior members of Parliament are availing themselves to be open to a bidding war from corrupt forces, you need to know that this is about more than just public funds being diverted from important service delivery initiatives. That alone, of course, is reason to be mightily pissed off when corruption within the state — sponsored by private interests including private companies — gets exposed.

The last couple of weeks also show us the importance of not believing a narrative of South African exceptionalism. We are special but less special than we want to admit. The idea of a democratic miracle was so potent as a premise in the case for exceptionalism that after 1994 we often became complacent. We could not imagine that postcolonial disappointments in the region could be replicated in the so-called new South Africa.

Guard against antidemocratic backsliding

As a result of this exceptionalism belief, not enough of us paid attention to the signs that indicate antidemocratic backsliding. We therefore designed, in theory, many important new accountability mechanisms and oversight bodies and institutions but we often ignored the hard work required for cultural and behavioural shifts within the state, private sector and even civil society. And now we see the continuities with the past and realise that building a just society takes work, and cannot be a declaratory event. 

Now we are in a situation where our collective tardy response to corruption has resulted in corruption getting out of hand to the point of it also being a security threat. The murder of Lieutenant Colonel Charl Kinnear, the head of the Anti-Gang unit, has revealed connections between gangsterism, corruption within the South African Police Service and the rest of the criminal justice value chain, our body politic, and both the formal and informal economies. 

The South African state has gone from merely being inefficient and ineffective (bad enough for a democracy) to showing serious signs of now being a gangster state in which the criminal underworld has connections to and within the state. Assassinations of lawyers and law enforcement officers, politicians and civil servants, plus the intimidation of journalists working on these horror stories, are becoming more commonplace than many of us want to admit or want to know for fear of upsetting the narrative of South African exceptionalism. 

While the arrests in relation to corruption are therefore to be welcomed, we need to stay engaged as active democrats. 

The goons will not disappear. They will fight back. Supporters of ANC secretary general Ace Magashule have already accused law enforcement agencies of being beholden to factions within the ANC. In a country with our levels of poverty and unemployment, hired goons are also easily available to be used to do battle for you if you are a corrupt kingpin with cash and resources that you can give away to those who are destitute. 

In that context, the abuse of our conditions of poverty by corrupt politicians is also a political sin we should call out. 

Who can remember the criminal disruption of a mere book launch by journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh at Sandton City last April? Now we know that the core claims in Gangster State — still a compulsory and cogent read — are true, which is why threats to sue him have proved to be a feeble attempt to silence him.

The democratic project isn’t over. It is neither completed nor is it irreparably damaged. But it must be nurtured with the help of deliberate work on the part of every citizen committed to realising our democratic potential. Don’t choose silence. Don’t be complacent. And guard against becoming jaded.